‘You see, I just want to lose weight this year, so I’m trying this diet. You won’t believe how easy it is, literally all I have to do is skip breakfast and lunch, then and eat a high fibre, high protein, low sugar, low carb, low fat, vegetable-only low sugar, high protein, low fat, only vegetable meal for dinner!’
It’s a cliché that we’re all aware of, and one we’ve probably bought onto ourselves – the New Year’s diet. Magazines published at this time of year are rife with articles showing minor celebrities boasting of how, by using THIS one simple trick, they shed five pounds in two weeks, and YOU CAN DO IT TOO.
Shops sneakily move their ‘health’ products to the front of their window displays, and juice companies surely worship the time of year when people drink their product in droves, for the sake of ‘cleansing’ or ‘detoxing’ their bodies (spoiler alert: that’s what your kidneys are for).
The fad diet is an integral and inherently problematic part of diet culture, and has only been made more pervasive as an institution in recent years with the rise of social media. Are there any benefits at all to participating in these diets?
The short answer is no. While the pros and cons have been heatedly debated from many angles, there is little to no actual science to support the idea that fad diets are anything but fads. The NHS warns against using diets that exclude certain food groups, or encourage the over-eating of others, and that are reliant on almost immediate results. And the British Dietary Association releases an annual ‘diets to avoid’ list, in order to prevent pseudo-scientific diets from gaining traction.
The problem, however, is that these institutions are not recognising the more insidious way that fad-dieting culture has moved into our lives. No longer are diets such as the ‘only cabbage soup’ type promoted, but instead many now claim to have scientific or homeopathic backing, and companies are spending large sums of money paying celebrities who are often completely uneducated on such issues, to promote them.
The notion of the ‘insta-babe’ selling us her favourite ‘skinny tea’, or the reality TV star demonstrating their ‘before and after’ results from a 5:2 (or intermittent fasting) diet, has become ubiquitous. But the real issue isn’t whether or not people choose to use laxatives, or decide to skip breakfast most mornings – the fundamental problems with this type of dieting and diet promotion is that they are hinged on the idea of weight loss, rather than encouraging a healthy lifestyle, and they suggest that other aspects of our lifestyles – how often we exercise, whether we drink, what types of food we normally eat – are lesser factors than the supposedly more effective, faster solution.
In reality, there isn’t anything that wrong with deciding to mostly cut out carbs, or to spend a few weeks – sensibly – restricting your calorific intake. But there is something wrong with failing to acknowledge, as most people do, that this short-term fix has to be supplemented by a longer term, and much harder, lifestyle change.
For those of us who have suffered from an unhealthy relationship with food and our bodies, fad diets present a concerningly tempting way to disguise much deeper problems. The implication of a diet that tells you to cut out certain food groups is to create a notion in your mind that some food is ‘bad’ and other food is ‘good’. The only way that food can be categorised as ‘good’ is if it will make or keep you thin. In reality, it’s just not healthy to create a mindset that ruminates over the calories and sugar content of every food item.
These diets contribute to an already incredibly toxic ‘diet culture’ that has made society obsessed with their bodies – especially women. The thinly-veiled misogyny that exists in this industry must not be ignored. It’s rare that fad diets are targeted towards men. The classic image of a ‘healthy’ woman is one who wears a size six pair of running leggings, has a perfectly toned stomach, and who is preferably chugging a glass of green juice every two hours. Now, I’m sure this woman is healthy, but the image that she is promoting to thousands of women and girls just isn’t.
Whereas men’s magazines typically tend to focus on encouraging guys to hit the gym and eat nutritious and balanced diets, women’s magazines are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to creating this toxic atmosphere. There is so much subliminal messaging – the suggestion that ‘to be thin is to be happy’ is displayed without those words ever having to be used. It comes from beautiful, lithe and seemingly happy models who seem to be needlessly participating in said diet. It comes from social media-based companies who target you by using language like ‘babes’ and ‘chicas’ to form a kind of corporate faux-feminist bond with their consumer base.
In order to contribute to the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, it is necessary that fad diets are recognised for exactly what they are – short term and usually ineffective solutions that can be incredibly detrimental not only to one’s physical health, but to their mental health as well.
There would be little point reiterating the messages sent out by health organisations regarding the cons of fad-dieting; these are almost as clichéd as the diets themselves. What really matters is educating people properly on nutrition and encouraging an active lifestyle from an early age.
This particularly applies to young girls, as by the age of 10 anywhere from 50-80 per cent of young girls in western countries will have tried a diet. This just isn’t right. I’m not condemning using a specific diet in accordance with a pre-existing healthy lifestyle, but the culture and the society which suggests that diets should be undertaken without the necessary research and consultation, and in pursuit of the wrong aims, should be.